When Sheikha Raya Al-Khalifa left her home country of Bahrain for Qatar a few years ago to marry her husband, her friends were worried.
“They immediately said: ‘Oh no, you are going to a country where you are going to wear the abaya!'” Sheikha Raya remembers, laughing at the memory.
We are sitting in the lounge of a luxury hotel in South Kensington, London, sipping glasses of ice water. Sheikha Raya is draped from head to toe in a black abaya. Her hair is covered but her face is visible and impeccably made up. Her fingernails are painted bright red. A large gold necklace hangs from her neck. His 4 inch heels are Valentino “Rock Stud” pumps.
Despite her choice to dress in a garment associated with religious and patriarchal subjugation, the 29-year-old Sheikha Raya is unlike an oppressed woman in any other respect. âWhen people make comments about covering up, they just don’t get it,â she says. “It’s not that thing that is forced on us. It’s a reflection of what is part of our culture.”
Sheikha Raya is part of a new wave of young women across the Middle East and beyond who seek to redefine traditional Islamic dress – the abaya (mantle), niqab (facial veil), burqa (covering whole body) and the hijab (the scarf on the head and shoulders) – as a means of female expression. These women insist that they do not equate modest clothing with persecution, but that wearing an abaya can be a statement of both individual choice and style.
It is a position that continues to divide opinion. In September, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg sparked a nationwide debate after saying he didn’t think the full-face veil was appropriate attire for airport or classroom security. Shortly thereafter, a government review was launched on the health services guidelines on the sails to ensure patients had “appropriate face-to-face contact.”
As politicians debated the issue, the Victoria and Albert Museum hosted a brilliant event on the eve of London Fashion Week to showcase the work of three Qatari women designers, all of whom took traditional Islamic dress as their starting point. On the catwalk, richly embroidered abayas were paired with futuristic Philip Treacy headdresses and Asprey handbags.
Farheen Allsopp, a businesswoman and former model who coordinated the Fashion Exchange initiative, said the aim of the event was: âTo celebrate the abaya as a garment of style and modesty much like the kimono. and the sari have been with Japanese and Indian cultures. In my opinion, the abaya is a garment of expression rather than oppression. “
She beckons her own chic outfit: a sheer black abaya worn over it American clothing leggings, Sergio rossi heels and cinched at the waist with a Alexander McQueen belt.
âI wear it like a dress and it’s not about showing the skin, it’s about showing how stylish you wear something,â she says. “You can use different fabrics, different shapes.”
Sheikha and Farheen both insist that they are increasingly frustrated by the “condescending” Western attitude which assumes that a woman must be unable to act confidently while wearing the abaya or niqab. âJust because we are wearing the abaya, we are not sitting at home doing nothing,â Sheikha explains. “Do not mistake yourself.”
It’s a point of view that leaves many Westerners clearly uncomfortable. And the notion of the abaya or the niqab as a fashion statement still has the potential to cause huge controversy.
When Nicola Formichetti, the artistic director of the clothing brand Diesel and the former stylist of Lady Gaga, have developed a recent advertising campaign featuring a tattooed woman wearing a niqab and nothing else besides the slogan: “I am not what I appear to be”, he said. he makes an uproar.
“The key question is whether a woman is required to wear the abaya by law,” says Leila Ahmed, professor of theology at Harvard University and author of A quiet revolution: the resurgence of the veil, from the Middle East to America. “If they are free to choose, one could certainly argue that the bikini is no more sexist than the abaya: they are both constructions of the female body.”
Of course, in less repressive states like Qatar and Dubai, women are more able to make their own choices than, for example, in Saudi Arabia, where the strict dress code requires a woman to show only her hands and their eyes. But even if something is not required by law, can wearing the abaya or niqab really be an act of empowerment?
In her successful feminist memoirs, How to be a woman, Caitlin Moran says the idea of ââchoosing to wear a veil is an illusion. “Who are you protected from?” she writes. ” Men. And who – as long as you play by the rules and wear the correct clothes – protects you from men? Men. And who is it that sees you as just a sex object, instead of another human being, in the first place? Men.
But Professor Ahmed argues that women’s clothing of all cultures, religions and ideologies has some sort of sexist foundation.
âI think all dress is symbolic and often very sexist in most societies,â she says. âIt is true that the abaya keeps the eyes of men away. I think in other times this was one of the explanations why western men who first visited Muslim societies were so offended, because they couldn’t see the woman below. ; they did not have access to women’s bodies. “
In Paris, an underground graffiti artist called Princess Hijab has taken to the streets in recent years and has spray painted veils and hijabs on mannequins pictured on billboards. The implicit question is whether hiding a face behind a niqab is any different from hiding one behind makeup and airbrush in a shiny poster celebrating consumerist mores.
Indeed, Sheikha Raya insists that wearing the abaya in the name of style actually removes the need to be competitive with other women on looks or designer brands. It is, she claims, an egalitarian garment that can be liberating just because you don’t have to think about different outfits throughout the day.
“I take my child to school at 6 am, I do my shopping, I get an unexpected call to go to a business meeting, I have a formal dinner at the end of the day and I’m wearing my abaya for, “she says. “If you’re in the west, you have to go change or do your hair. I think the latter is more of a restriction.”
With the emergence of the Gulf countries as economic poles, a new wave of creators is already seeking to capitalize on their purchasing power. In 2011, Reuters reported that women from the Middle East became the world’s biggest buyers of high fashion..
Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy made a 2009 collection based on Bedouin dresses and traditional Arab headwear while Alessandra Rich, a British designer whose designs were worn by Samantha Cameron, used a series of her haute couture abayas in a photoshoot for Vogue Italy.
Many of Valentino’s fall / winter haute couture dresses display a distinctly Islamic influence (including a long sleeve agate and chartreuse maxi dress) and designer Stephane Rolland has a vast customer base across the Middle East – in August he opened his first ready-to-wear boutique not in Paris, Milan or London but in Abu Dhabi.
In 2010, the same year the French government banned the veil, Chanel Creative Director Karl Lagerfeld praised the burqa because: âI find it quaint. A year later, when Nigella Lawson went swimming in Sydney with a burkini (swimwear originally designed for Islamic women), the item’s sales increased by 400%. Lady Gaga often wears Islamic clothing on stage, including a neon pink burqa.
The women I talk to argue that just because they might choose to dress modestly doesn’t automatically suggest that they aren’t fashionable, nor does it imply disapproval of more revealing clothes – it’s always possible to a woman to wear as little as she wants and not deserve objectification or misogyny. In fact, many Islamic feminists argue that endlessly debating the value or not of wearing the veil or abaya dehumanizes women and distracts attention from more pressing issues such as employment and education.
Can an abaya or niqab ever be separated from its religious heritage and considered only as a fashion statement? Sheikha Raya points out that the economies of the Gulf States have grown rapidly in recent decades with the expansion of the oil industry. As a result, the region: “had to modernize very, very quickly, in a fraction of the time it took the rest of the world.”
The suggestion is that while the economy may have undergone rapid change, cultural and religious history will take some time to catch up.
âI grew up in America, where women only got the right to vote in the 1920s,â explains Sheikha Raya. “In the West, women still don’t get equal pay. Maybe we should view this gender inequality as a global problem rather than focusing on what people wear in their own culture. Because we are. happy. We are definitely not oppressed. “
It might not mean much to the woman in Saudi Arabia who is prohibited from learning to drive or the schoolgirl in Pakistan who gets shot in the head just because she wanted to study. But what voices like Sheikha Raya, Farheen Allsopp and Leila Ahmed are saying is that the debate should not be about a veil or a cape alone. He should look deeper.
“I think the whole question of ‘Islamic feminism’ is very complicated because it tends to erase [the fact] that Muslims are like everyone else, âsays Professor Ahmed. âThey can be secular, they can be very religious, they can wear the hijab or not. There are the same kinds of issues if you are a Jewish feminist or a Christian feminist or a Muslim feminist. “
A woman is therefore more than the clothes she wears or the fashions she chooses to follow. This goes for any culture – with or without the bling-up abaya.